The Shelving Game

In some of our marketing blog posts, you would have heard Brendan or I talk about the need for small publishers to look at alternative ways of selling and advertising books, other than bookstores. What you small press aficionados may have already noticed in your search for the perfect indie novel is that you will rarely find a small press book on the gleaming shelves of a shiny bookstore, particularly if that bookstore is a chain.

You may have bemoaned this fact as you drag your feet away from the rows and rows of choices, back to Book Depository, Amazon, or even the publisher or author’s own website to find what you’re looking for. It’s definitely a pain, but many people don’t generally question why. What is it about the organisation of bookstores that prevent small press from getting a real foothold?

Start by thinking about your favourite bookstore. Picture it in your mind. Whoa! There’s SO MANY BOOKS. I always find it a bit overwhelming when I walk into a bookstore. There’s a multitude of choices, and that’s the reason very few people are still brave enough to venture into one with me.

But step back for a moment. That choice that we’re all confronted with, those who own the bookstore are confronted with that decision on a far larger scale when they are considering how to stock their store. Those seemingly endless shelves hold only a small fraction of all the possible books a store could stock. There is so much choice; bookstores need to find a way of cutting through them all.

Obviously, part of what they decide to stock is based on demand. If five customers a day come in and want a particular book, then it makes sense to start getting a few on the shelves. Customers are notoriously impatient people, and will be far more satisfied with their experience if they don’t have to wait a couple of days for their book to be ordered in.

But another key part of the decision making process are distributors. These are companies that act like sales executives for books, and liaise with bookstores to get books on shelves. They often provide promotional material for bookstores, and have large selections that sellers can choose from.

Like everything else in this world, they cost money. Often a lot of it. Therefore, those with the most books to sell, and who usually publish books in high demand, have the most to gain from a distributor. If you’ve only published one book, or even only ten, the cost of a distributor will be far more prohibitive. So once again, we have a means for accessing consumers dominated by the large publishing houses.

If you aren’t with a distributor, your chances of getting on the shelves are much lower. Distributors are respected companies, and the fact that they accept a book, author, or publisher into their repertoire is a vote of confidence. A distributor with a nice shiny catalogue will always be considered more respectable than an author who can’t afford such resources off the bat, but is still passionate about what they have produced.

Unfortunately, getting your book into a bookstore isn’t as simple as just sending them a bunch of copies. It involves a complex mix of ordering, permission, returns policies and sales figures. Distributors can smooth this process, which is why they are an important part of getting a book on the shelves. But small press are often left out as big companies and bestsellers take the place of lesser-known books. The fact that small publishers have such difficulty getting into bookstores is often something that prevents their growth, as you can’t make sales if no one sees your product. It’s unfortunate that, although it seems like we have so much choice in a bookstore, the decision on whether to read small press books or not has already been made for us.

if you’re keen to explore what small press has to offer, think about exploring the websites of small publishing houses. Odyssey conducts sales through its own website, as well as on Amazon and Book Depository, as do most other small presses.

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